Review: Matthew Bowman, “The Mormon People”

The Mormon People (cover)Title: The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith
Author: Matthew Bowman
Publisher: Random House
Genre: History
Year: 2012
Pages: 352
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN-13: 978-0679644903
Price: $26.00

Hallelujah! The world needed an accessible, neutral, brief, birth-to-present history of Mormonism, and it needed it right now. Matthew Bowman has written that book. Including every relevant moment from the boy Joseph’s leg operation to Twilight, and from suffragist Emmeline Wells to Broadway’s Elder Price, all in a slim 253 pages (plus several appendices), Bowman works a space-packing miracle reminiscent of Dr. Who’s TARDIS or Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Opinion makers in the media, politics, and academia who want to join the conversation about Mormons will be well prepared by this brisk and rigorous overview, and I imagine many keeping a heavily Post-It-noted copy near at hand in the coming months and years. Bowman’s work shines most brightly in its detailed rendering of the uniquely fertile soil for religious innovation in the time and place of young Joseph Smith’s America, and its painstakingly balanced study of the early origins of the church. Interested outsiders will also find, in Chapter 8, an excellent portrait of daily life for “an active, committed Mormon family” today, including the rhythms of weekly meetings and activities, and private devotional life such as Family Home Evening.

Chapter one begins with a vignette of “the Prophet Matthias.” This colorful character claimed to be an Israelite prophet reborn, and had some small success as a charlatan preacher in New York before financial ruin and criminal justice involvement brought an end to it. Bowman introduces us to Matthias as he arrives in Kirtland to meet Joseph Smith, and Matthias’ first glimpse of Joseph and the hive of saints is ours as well. The choice is unexpected, not least because the figure of Matthias mirrors some of the most unflattering aspects, real and caricatured, of Joseph Smith. Claimed to be prophets, expected extreme financial sacrifice of followers, changed followers’ marriage arrangements–check, check, and check. We are thus immediately confronted with the uncomfortable question, what does set Smith apart from Matthias? Why does the latter lie “buried and forgotten,” while the former’s “name [is] recited and blessed in sermon and testimony by millions, the scripture he spoke and the rituals he taught cherished across the globe as the true and ordained way to God”?

Bowman’s answer seems to be, in large part, the titular “Mormon People.” When the Kirtland Safety Society collapses, when Boggs drives them from Missouri, when Joseph is martyred, when the federal government pushes the church to the brink over Utah polygamy, the Mormon people had their own momentum that steamrolled right through every hardship. Joseph was the instigator of a deeply collaborative effort to achieve a new kind of community. To start the movement, it took one charismatic figure with a vision of God, but the Mormon phenomenon went on to thrive, grow, and evolve because so many followers had their own visions and testimonies.

For the most part, Bowman describes supernatural visitations and the like in a factual voice. While I can imagine some particularly persnickety readers taking exception to this, I think it makes sense even for a neutral historical work. Crowding the prose with excessive “he said” “he claimed” is not necessary when Bowman does meticulously document counter opinions or facts. No member of the whos-who of “challenging” facts in church history is omitted from Bowman’s book: treasure-seeking, multiple accounts of the first vision, Mountain Meadows, and so on. Indeed, this is one thing that makes Bowman’s book so valuable–it is uncompromisingly frank, but not needlessly sensationalistic (I’m looking at you, Krakauer!).

There were instances where I thought I perceived Bowman inserting just a hair’s width more distance to a supernatural claim. I felt like a sneaky house guest peeking into my host’s medicine cabinet, wondering if this was a reflection of his own feelings on the detail in question, or my own projection, or just part of the random background variation in wording choices that occurs anytime one is filling 300+ pages describing sometimes repeating situations.

Something that maybe needed to be said, to drag us out of our presentism, was how common visions and stones and dowsers were in Joseph’s time. I counted several times where Bowman would list 3-5 names of other people, Biblical or contemporary, who did similar things. Perhaps it seemed at times over-emphasized to me precisely because my Mormon perspective inclines me to not view those things as shockingly strange, as they might seem to others. I am not the target audience for those lists, but I can understand the reason for including them.

If I take a moment to stop admiring this book for the outstanding achievement it is, and think about other things I might have wanted a hypothetical book to be, the first thing on the list would more anecdotal color–more journal entries here, more detailed visuals there. Take for example Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine. It gives a brisk academic summary of the key legal issues at stake in the opinions issued from the last several decades in the US Supreme Court, but it also gives enough close-up that keeps it lively and you feel like you know the personalities involved–reclusive Souter who in the off-season retreated to a Vermont cabin with no TV, the preening Kennedy. On the scale from can’t-put-it-down thrilling to textbook boring, Toobin is closer to Clancy than Bowman is. Maybe the difference is that Toobin only had 9 personalities and a few decades to cover, whereas Bowman has nearly 2 centuries and hundreds or thousands of personalities. Still, I would be quicker (very quick) to recommend this to an academic friend, or a serious reader, or as required reading for a class, or as required reading for anyone publicly commentating upon Mormons or Mormonism, than I would to just some hypothetical neighbor who is mildly curious about the church and typically only reads popular novels. I’m not sure what the right book for that hypothetical curious neighbor would look like. I would like to have a book like that, but at this juncture of media spotlight and serious dialog on history, ahistory, and current direction of the church, I am very grateful for the book Bowman did write.

Finally, I want to respond to reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times (what can I say, humility isn’t my strong suit). Both take Bowman to task for not “addressing” Krakauer and Big Love, but this is nonsense. Publisher’s Weekly itself explains why, “Bowman doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of the Mormon faith, including a now-discredited belief in polygamy (as revealed in a revelation to Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion), as well as institutionalized racism.” In other words, the book incorporates every factual, relevant criticism included in Krakauer. How that constitutes “left entirely unaddressed in this work” is a mystery, except that he wasn’t cited by name on each page. DKL does an able job explaining why Krakauer doesn’t merit named rebuttals on page after page. More than anything, these reviews expressing disappointment that pop culture expressions of Mormonism, including Krakauer, Big Love, and the Osmonds, were not given more prominence, just illustrate the dire need for Bowman’s book to provide the world a broader view of what Mormonism was and is. To too many outsiders, we are defined by a handful of narrow pop culture caricatures that entirely miss that broader view. What is disappointing is that, provided that broader view, the complaint seems to be, “but the view doesn’t emphasize the narrow caricatures in the proportion I have been accustomed to!”

Comments

  1. Thanks for the fine review, Cynthia — my copy is somewhere in the Amazon delivery pipeline. It is disturbing how many people think that Krakauer’s book is an authoritative statement of LDS history. I liked the book, but sheesh, the guy is an adventure writer, not a historian.

  2. Well done, Cynthia; a great review for a great book.

  3. Great review of a great book.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Excellent review, Cynthia — two questions:

    1. What was your favorite part of the book?
    2. If you didn’t already have a copy, is this a book you would buy?

  5. Mark Brown says:

    It really surprises me that other reviews have complained about Bowman’s about lack of engagement with Banner of Heaven and Big Love. It’s like a Tea Partier writing a review of a serious Obama biography complaining about it not covering his pivotal childhood indoctrination in a madrassa in Indonesia, and not engaging with the work of scholars like Donald Trump who have brought up serious issues about Obama’s birth certificate.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    ;-)

  7. This is an excellent review, Cynthia. I hope we’ll continue to see high-quality reviews like this from you in the future.

  8. Well done, thank you.

  9. Great review, Cynth; thanks.

  10. Great review. For the record, Toobin is a pretty awful hack and other than the gossipy details, he isn’t taken seriously by legal scholars (at least not legal scholars that one should take seriously). I’m glad that Matt is NOT the Jeff Toobin of Mormon studies…

  11. Haha. Fair enough, Nate. Perhaps I am to Toobin and legal history/scholarship what many outsiders to Mormonism are to Krakauer and Mormon history/scholarship.

  12. An important book in the present. People ignore it at their savvy-peril. The review was terrific. More please.

  13. But legal scholars take gossipy details very, very seriously.

  14. Nathan, I think the point is that Toobin employs some rhetorical gestures in his narrative that make it a little more lively to read. I think some of the methods of popular writers as far as tone can be stolen by more academic writers to make things a bit more easy on the popular eyes. I like Matt’s prose style for the most part, but it would be nice to have a few more vignettes, etc. to sprite-en things up a bit.

    Cynthia, you said “I’m not sure what the right book for that hypothetical curious neighbor would look like.” I’d recommend Bushman’s Very Short Introduction to Mormonism for that curious neighbor, or the Bushman’s book Building the Kingdom. Seem aimed for a more popular audience. Bowman’s is for folks who are a bit more nerdy in the best ways.

    Here are some of my fav. bits of this review:

    Mary Poppins’ carpet bag

    I felt like a sneaky house guest peeking

    And wow, but you nailed it with this:

    What is disappointing is that, provided that broader view, the complaint seems to be, “but the view doesn’t emphasize the narrow caricatures in the proportion I have been accustomed to!”

    You did a nice job pointing out how Bowman’s intro is the question answered by Bowman’s title and theme. Well reviewed. Please review more books.

  15. “What is disappointing is that, provided that broader view, the complaint seems to be, ‘but the view doesn’t emphasize the narrow caricatures in the proportion I have been accustomed to!'”

    I agree with Bhodges. That is the best line in a fantastic review.

    I also want to second the recommendation of Bushman’s “Very Short Introduction to Mormonism” for the curious neighbor. Excellent book for that audience.

  16. I don’t really have anything to add, Cynthia; but I really enjoyed the review. Thanks for putting it together.

  17. Shazam!

  18. Wow, thanks everybody! But all your flattery still can’t convince me to do book reviews more regularly–they take way more time to produce than Reader Question Box and Awkward Family Photos!

    @Steve:

    (1) I don’t know about a “favorite part,” but of course I was very interested in the women’s history. I found it especially fascinating that several of the Joseph-esque figures (who started other religions) contemporary to Joseph were women. Ann Lee, Jemima Wilkinson, Joanna Southcott, Ellen G. White–I’d never heard any of these names.

    (2) I have a colleague who has been peppering me with Mormony questions lately, and I think this book would be really good for him. So yes, I’ll buy at least one copy to give away.

  19. Ditto above–a brilliantly managed history, excellently reviewed. I’d just like to add my own “Whaa-aaa?!” to the NYT Times and PW takes on this book. I’m not especially concerned with the reviewers’ rather typical mistakes in wanting Bowman to somehow “probe” or tease out their own cartoon mental images of Mormonism, or in their wanting more gossipy bits, or their wanting to be titillated with purpler prose–that’s run-of-the-mill, non-Mormon-reviews-Mormon-book-type stuff. But what really startles is the PW reviewer’s implication that association with Dialogue makes one rigidly beholden to an apologists’ agenda. I demand a retraction.

  20. Excellent review. “Something that maybe needed to be said, to drag us out of our presentism, was how common visions and stones and dowsers were in Joseph’s time.” We were required to read Bushman’s “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith” for an LDS History class (D&C maybe?) I took at BYU, and it was an eye-opener.

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=6465

  21. Cynthia L. says:

    Right, Brent. That mistake was pretty hilarious.

  22. What a great review! Thanks Cynthia.

  23. Well, I’m convinced. Great review. My problem is that I will likely have to buy one ebook copy for my Nook, and another copy to lend out, or more likely to throw at the Krakauer fans.

  24. Eager to read or to listen to the book. (It is available as an audio book, with the actor who starred in _How Great a Possession_ reading it.)
    I love your last paragraph, Cynthia!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,626 other followers